It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of Thomas Esparza, a former Marine, fearless union rep, beloved former president of AFGE Local 15 at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, and regional representative for District 7.
Esparza was elected president of Local 15 in 1995 and was re-elected by acclimation every election until his retirement in 2012. Because of his passion for workers’ rights and advocacy work, he was inducted into the AFL-CIO (Northwestern Illinois-Eastern Illinois chapter) Hall of Fame in 2013.
There was a reason Esparza was so loved and admired by those who knew him.
Back before he became president, Rock Island was some kind of a twilight zone, as one employee put it. They operated on unwritten rules. Workers learned about workplace changes mostly through rumors. People were fired and promoted for no good reason. The working environment was hostile. Then Esparza came along. He made a name for himself by being a passionate advocate for his coworkers. He wasn’t scared of managers and wouldn’t hesitate to file a complaint for employees if they had a good reason.
"People lined up at the union office for a chance to talk with Tom. Tom carefully listened to all the people, advising each accordingly," said a local officer who nominated him for the Hall of Fame. "Tom quickly advanced to local president. Over the next decade, I saw the workplace transform. People began to realize that they had rights. The union, in the form of Tom Esparza, would protect those rights.”
The local officer said Esparza had “done more for the workers at Rock Island Arsenal than anyone else in the history of the island.”
After his retirement, Esparza stayed involved with the union as a temporary national representative for District 7, using his knowledge, expertise, and experience to help local activists throughout the district. He loved working elections and educating his fellow union members about candidates.
Mary DeSmet, a vice president of AFGE Local 15, said Esparza’s ability to remember cases and do research astounded her.
“He honestly was a legend. If someone didn’t know him, they knew his name. He knew so much and was always willing to share his knowledge with me, discuss issues, and help me see both sides to every issue,” she said. “Collaborating with Tom made working a case and learning, fun. And it didn’t matter to Tom what level the person he was dealing with was. He spoke to generals like he spoke to employees having a problem. He was never one to back down to management…Every person he dealt with could sense that he truly cared.”
Laulak Siddique had known Esparza since 1993. Back then, Siddique was the secretary and later president of NAGE, the union that represented professional employees. They were both members of the Labor Management Partnership Council. One day not long after Operation Desert Storm, Siddique was in the Local 15 union office and noticed an anti-Arab sticker on a bookshelf. Enraged, he stormed out of the office. Esparza came to Siddique’s office, apologized, and explained that the sticker had not been put there by Local 15 and that the desk had come to the office as excess. No one had noticed the sticker and they had torn it off.
“He sat at my desk for 30 minutes or more. We talked about how we were both against any kind of discrimination. That is when we became friends. Tom mentored me regarding union representation,” Siddique recalled.
After NAGE was merged with Local 15 and Siddique told Esparza he would vacate his parking space, Esparza not only told him to keep the parking space but also made him a senior steward. Siddique was later elected Chief Steward.
“Tom fought for me and with me,” he said. “He was a friend, a mentor, and he will be missed.”